It’s no accident that opposition to cruelty appears in “The Good Place.” Not only does it reflect the struggle of the show’s characters against the demon Shawn (Mark Evan Jackson), who seeks and even revels in cruelty, it is also tied to another concept, one that appears as a running theme throughout the series: redemption. It is the struggle of redemption against cruelty that animates the episode, toward which “The Good Place” has been building for several seasons now.
Let’s recall the trajectory of the show since early in the second season. What the demon Michael (Ted Danson) — the architect of The Good Place — discovers is that, contrary to Jean-Paul Sartre’s dictum in his play “No Exit,” hell is not always other people. He learns, in fact, that other people may be necessary for one’s own moral redemption.
As the seasons progress, Michael watches the flawed human beings around him help one another become better, to the point that they decide to help other people back on earth even when they believe there is no possibility of their being admitted to the real Good Place (the show’s humorous version of the “good” afterlife). That is, they are capable of redeeming themselves and one another.
This idea that redemption is an interpersonal affair, one that requires others, recalls Aristotle’s view in his “Nicomachean Ethics” that ethics is a branch of politics — that the ability to become virtuous requires a political arrangement, a social context, that can foster it. Aristotle, however, seemed to think that to become ethical requires the exposure to people who are already virtuous, people who can act as models for others . “The Good Place” begs to differ on that score: the show’s characters are hardly models of virtue when they meet. They are deeply flawed human beings who make one another better.
However, although Chidi and his friends Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Jason (Manny Jacinto) and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) can redeem one another, their redemption is refused by Shawn. He is interested in cruelty, not redemption. As Michael says of him after the group’s failure to convince him to give humanity a chance at survival, “He’s so focused on beating us that he’s willing to burn everything down.” In short, while Shklar puts cruelty first as anathema, Shawn puts it first as enticement.